The greatest letters ever written
When the Swiss lawyer Albin Schram died in 2005, he left behind an extraordinary collection of letters by some of Western civilisation's greatest minds. They will soon go under the hammer - but here are the highlights of the collection
Wednesday 27 June 2007
Napoleon Bonaparte to Joséphine de Beauharnais, following a row during the preparations for their marriage on 9 March 1796. Translated from the French.
"So you thought that I did not love you for yourself! For what, then? Oh Madame, did you really think this? Could such an unworthy feeling have been conceived by such a pure spirit? I am still astonished at it, but less however than at the feeling which on my awakening brings me back to your feet, without resentment and without willpower. It is certainly impossible to be weaker or further abased. What then is your strange power, incomparable Josephine? One of your thoughts poisons my life, tears my soul apart... but a stronger feeling, a less sensitive mood, takes hold of me, draws me back and rules me again as if I were guilty. I truly feel that if we quarrel I should close my heart... And you mio dolce amor - Have you spared me even two thoughts?!!! I kiss you three times, once on your heart, once on your lips and once on your eyes."
Claude Monet to his wife, Alice, on Friday, 8 February 1901, while staying at the Savoy Hotel in London.
"Today the sun did not show itself and that really bothered me, the fog was very thick the whole day, even though I remained conscientiously on the look out, having my lunch brought up to me for fear that a break in the weather might occur while I was in the restaurant, but in spite of everything the day was not much good, even this evening at the hospital you could not see much - in fact, it is to be expected because that's the climate.
"What is so stupid is that it is always fine weather, but obstructed by the fog, but that does not stop me wasting paint in making every possible attempt."
Ludwig van Beethoven to Nikolaus Zmeskall, a friend with whom he discussed his art, circa 1811. Translated from the German.
"Please send me the quartet at the latest by 4 o'clock this afternoon, as I need it urgently. If your servant finds no-one at home, he should simply leave it to the landlady."
Oscar Wilde's thankyou letter to Emily Wren, whose son Chrissie had sent a seasonal gift, dated 13 December 1888.
"I cannot tell you how charmed I am with Chrissie's present. It is a very sweet picture of him, and I prize it very much in memory of my little friend. I have considered it my duty to write him a letter expressing my gratitude... Give my regards to your husband."
TS Eliot's postcard to Clive Bellon 6 January 1948. The card was addressed:
"O stalwart Sussex postman, who is / Delivering the post from Lewes, / Cycle apace to Charlton Firle / While knitting at your plain and purl / Deliver there to good Clive Bell / (You know the man, you know him well / He plays the virginals and spinet) / This note - there's... nothing in it."
Albert Einstein to his childhood friend Paul Habicht, written in Connecticut, 5 July, 1935. The reference in the first sentence is to Habicht's ill-health.
"I heard recently that the Devil - the only one who is never without work these days - has had his claws firmly in you. He will let you go again sooner or later, as in the long period of our separation has already happened to me twice, although he seemed to have me firmly in his paws. Do you still remember when we were young, and we were working together on those nice little electrostatic machines? Do you also remember our conversation about the politics of Germany, which you were still defending during the war, while I had already got to know at first hand the consequent dangers? I weighed anchor just at the right moment from there, so that I at least didn't get to feel the claws of the clean-cut heroes in my back. I have now set up home in this curious new world and am still brooding like an old hen on the same old scientific eggs, even if the bodily warmth which one needs for brooding has rather diminished over the years. What is so nice in this country is that the people don't sit so much on top of one another and, as a result, feel more comfortable with each other. So I sit here the whole summer in a quiet bay and sail in a little sailing boat as much as I want to. And one becomes some sort of Indian in this sun."
Elizabeth I to Henry IV of France, circa 1596, agreeing to his request to allow the French ambassador leave to remain in England for two months. Translated from the French.
"The solemn oath by which you requested me to grant permission to your ambassador to stay for two months was expressed to me so vigorously by him that... I could not refuse such a request coming from the hand of one who, beyond my desire to satisfy him, strengthens his case by such testimony. I dare say in addition only that the effects of what you say of affection are seen from day to day. But there I will put a full stop... I am entrusting your ambassador... to convey to you both the profound gratitude which I owe you for his having demonstrated... the warmth of your friendship with the most ardent wish which can be imagined (that you would not withdraw) the pledge given, nor contradict your promise to me, assuring me that you have never seen on my behalf any wish to regret it."
Charlotte Brontë on critical reaction to her recently published novel Shirley. Letter to her literary adviser, William Smith Williams, dated 9 November, 1849.
"I perused all the newspapers attentively. The Spectator and Athenaeum amused me. The critics of these papers are, I doubt not, acute men in their way - theirs is not the shallow weakness of The Observer and the Daily News. But when called on to criticise works of imagination, they stand in the position of deaf men required to listen to music, or blind men to judge a painting. The Practical their minds can grasp; of the Ideal, they know nothing."
Oliver Cromwell to his friend Sir Henry Vane the Younger, 22 April, 1651, during the writer's recovery from a long illness.
"The exceeding crowd of business I had at London is the best excuse I can make for my silence this way... I hope you give my son good councill, I believe he needs it. He is in the dangerous time of this age, and it's a very vain world. You see how I am employed? I need pity. I know what I feel, great place and business in the world is not worth the looking after... I have not sought these things... Truly I have been called to them by the Lord and therefore am not without some good assurance that He will enable his poor worm, and weak servant to do his will, and to fulfill my generation. In this I beg your prayers."
Manuscript of essay by Sir Isaac Newton about classical views "on the structure of the universe". It is believed to be his first written reference to gravity. Undated
"Fire is worshipped amongst the Medes and Assyrians... Anaximander teaches that the universe is infinite... Anaxagoras considered that the heavenly fires by the violence of their revolving broke off stones from the Earth and accumulated them and converted them into stars. Lucius, who contended that the Moon was an Earth suspended in the heavens, disputed against Parnaces, who wished the Moon to be a mixture of air and fire, lest it fall onto Earth... Now its motion and impetus help the Moon not to fall, for its natural motion of attraction (ie gravity) works upon every single thing, if it is not redirected elsewhere... Therefore gravity does not move the Moon since its motion is not brought down from its circular orbit."
Winston Churchill, aged 16, writes home to his mother, Lady Randolph Churchill, from Harrow, in November 1890, requesting a visit from his nanny, Elizabeth Ann Everest.
"Darling Mummy, I am getting on all right and am learning lots each day. One line to tell you I am well, happy tho' very tired... Please send Everest down, because she can help me in some work. I now send you my youthful love and remain your loving son..."
Draft article by Mahatma Gandhi for his publication Harijan, dated 11 January 1948. Written shortly before his assassination, it announces that the magazine will no longer be published in Urdu.
"Two weeks ago I hinted... that Harijan printed in the Urdu script was likely to be stopped as its sale was steadily dwindling... I saw no meaning in publishing it, if there was no demand for it. The dwindle was to me a sign of resentment against its publication... My view remains unalterable especially at this critical juncture in our history. It is wrong to ruffle Muslim or any other person's feeling when there is no question of ethics. Those who take the trouble of learning Urdu script... will surely lose nothing... If it was not for cussedness this proposition will be admitted without any argument. The limitations of this script in terms of perfection are many. But for elegance and grace it will equal any script in the world."
JR Tolkien to his illustrator, Pauline Diana Baynes, June 4th 1949, following the completion of his manuscript of Lord of the Rings.
"I ought to have written to you before to tell you of the great pleasure that your drawings in illustration of "Farmer Giles" have given me. My friends, very justly, said after seeing them that they had reduced the text to a commentary on the pictures. I am hoping soon to get some larger works published, and in a more ample fashion; and if so, I hope you might be interested, or at least have time to consider them. One, a long romance in sequel to The Hobbit, is finished after some years of work, and is being typed. It is held up at the moment, since I am immersed in examinations and other weary business; but when it's done, I wonder if I could prevail on you to glance at it."
Francisco de Goya to his friend Martin Zapater y Claveria, 10 November 1790, describing his distress at returning from Zaragoza to find that his son was suffering from chicken pox. Translated from Spanish.
"The highly praised handsome-ness of my little son has disappeared and in its place is a monstrosity completely covered with pox blisters. Can you imagine how I felt?"
Pytor Ilich Tchaikovsky, then 36, to Edouard Colonne, at the Conservatoire Impérial de Musique in Paris. 25 December, 1876. Translated from the French.
"I don't know if my name has had the privilege of being known to you. I am a Russian composer based in Moscow, enjoying a certain reputation in my country, but until now almost completely unknown abroad. This winter, Mr Pasdeloups had one of my ouvertures played in one of his popular concerts. Apparently this piece provoked some whistles but didn't go unnoticed. People have written to me to tell me that many musicians have found my music quite interesting... I would like... to rent one of the concert halls in Paris... As... I would not presume that the public would pay to come and see me, I will bring the necessary amount of money... I will distribute free entry tickets"
Ernest Hemingway to Ezra Pound, July 1925. A satirical diatribe on the virtues of bulls, written at Burguete, Spain, on the way to Pamplona.
"Bulls at least are not the greatest stylists in English. No bull has ever been a political exile. Bulls don't run reviews. Bulls of 25 don't marry old women of 55 and expect to be invited to dinner. Bulls do not get you cited as co-respondent in divorce trials. Bulls do not borrow money. Bulls do not expect you to marry them and make an honest woman of them. Bulls are edible after they have been killed. Fewer bulls are homosexual. To me bulls ain't exotic. They are normal. And such a goddam relief from all this horseshit about Art etc... To hell with delicate studies of the American scene. Fuck the American scene. Fuck manners, customs, all that horseshit. Let us have more and better fucking, fighting, and bulls."
John Donne's letter to Lady Kingsmill, after the death of her husband, 1624.
"We should not co-mplain, or reproach God, lest it render us uncapable of being reunited to those we loved here... We would wonder, to see a man, who in a wood, were left to hys liberty to fell what trees he would, take onely the crooked, and leave the straytest trees; but that Man had perchance a ship to build... and hath use of that kinde of timber."
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